The Miami Heat will have its hands full trying to handle the unbeaten San Antonio Spurs (3-0) Sunday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But it’s a job that can become a lot tougher if center Hassan Whiteside finds himself battling foul trouble again.
Though it’s only a small, two-game sample size of the regular season, the Heat lead the NBA in rim protection at an awfully impressive 34.5 percent (22 of 63). The next team on the list is the Denver Nuggets at 41.4%.
Naturally, Whiteside, the league's leading shot blocker a year ago, is at the center of Miami’s defensive success. Opponents are only 3 of 17 (17.6% NBA-best among centers) when going at the rim and Whiteside is defending. This of course doesn’t take into account all the shots opponents decide not to take when he’s on the floor patrolling the paint.
What we learned Friday is the effect Whiteside has when he’s on the bench with foul trouble. Although the Hornets had already shrunk a 19-point third quarter deficit to 65-54 when Whiteside picked up his fourth foul trying to stop Cody Zeller going to the rim, the Heat completely fell apart once its $98 million center was on the bench.
A look at the short chart on the NBA’s stats page shows Charlotte went 7 of 10 inside the paint while Whiteside sat until the 8:51 mark in the fourth quarter.
By the time Whiteside returned, the Hornets were up 81-79 and had complete control of the momentum.
Miami’s offense, meanwhile, stopped moving the ball as well as it had been doing and couldn’t score in the paint at all without Whiteside on the floor during that near 11-minute stretch.
The moral of the story here for the Heat is it can’t afford to go through long stretches without its $98 million center on the floor. That goes for both sides of the floor.